Interview: Graham Webb, 1967 World Champion
Part 4 - The Musings of Former Champion
Phil Julian, who writes our Cyclingcrazy column, travelled to Belgium to interview Graham Webb, the 1967 World Amateur Men's Road Race Champion. In the final part of our serialisation of the interview, Graham looks back at his first forays in to racing, offers some advice to aspiring racers and tells us of his admiration for a star of today.
Graham today - retired after 31 years as a crane driver in Belgium
When, as a street-wise kid Graham Webb sprinted millimetres from the back of Birmingham City buses he was ‘excited by the gob-smacked faces of the passengers' looking back at him. He imagined that the people in the streets were ‘his crowd'. They'd come to see him ride faster than anyone or anything else around him. On an old clunker of a bike he would catch club riders and drop them, as barely into his teens, he went on his Birmingham to Gloucester and back hard riding adventures.
"When I was sixteen I started riding with the local CTC. They were a good bunch but they didn't go quick enough for me. I was full of energy. I worked at the BSA motorbike factory, sometimes for 16 hours a day. I saw a young chap at work one day with a proper racing wheel, doing some repair. We got chatting and he suggested that I should go with him to the Solihull Clubroom, and that I should have a go at a time trial".
Graham remembers how he sat on the fringes of this cycling club gathering, not daring to speak, not even having the money to pay the club subs. Does this sort of experience sound familiar? He entered the Club 25, turned up, thought everyone started together; started late; caught other riders not understanding that he wasn't supposed to wait for them and got told to b****r off by one; jammed his chain between sprocket and frame and had to stop and still did the fastest actual time! For the next event, the word had got around. There was a sizeable crowd to watch ‘this local kid trounce the club stars, in cut-off jeans and plimsolls'. He didn't disappoint.
Road Racing beckoned and the next year, in 1962, as a junior, he dominated the local Birmingham scene with a certain Derek Harrison. Whilst Tommy Godwin supported both these talented juniors from his Silver Street, Kings Heath bike shop, Derek was Tommy's favourite. "It was awkward for Tommy really. I really was his poorest customer so he couldn't do me obvious favours when other kids' parents were spending a lot more money in the shop".
Graham made a brief and successful comeback on the track in Belgium in 1988, winning the national amateur Madison title
Tommy recognised his talent and determination and whilst Graham says "I never had a coach", he did listen well to the former Olympic medallist's advice. Tommy had won a Team Pursuit Bronze and a Kilo Bronze at the 1948 Olympics in London and his mentorship of Graham included the supply of road and track bikes but even more importantly the encouragement and plan to successfully attack the British Hour Record on the 11 July 1966 at Salford Park. It came at a crucial time for Graham.
"The year before, I came home from work one afternoon and found my stepfather dead. I found myself reflecting on our relationship for a long time. I still rode, still trained and I still won lots, but somehow all of a sudden in the months after his death, cycling didn't seem to mean as much. I discovered other things in life like parties, having a drink, girls. It's not like I went mad but in cycling terms I lost some motivation. Tommy could see what was happening and tempted me back full on, for the hour record attempt. Without the encouragement and support of people like Tommy Godwin and Albert Beurick, there would have been no Graham Webb World Champion".
So whilst not needing a ‘coach', it didn't stop him asking people who he thought could help him, for advice. "Other riders told me about Eddie Soens who worked in a hospital in Liverpool, I thought he was a doctor or a nurse but it turned out that he worked there as a French Polisher. I went from Birmingham to Liverpool on my Lambretta (I was a mod!) to see Eddie. He used to get these old bladder bellows from the operating theatres at the hospital, they used to expand and contract to aid breathing under anaesthetic I believe. Anyhow, Eddie told me to take it home and the idea was to take a deep breath, breathe out hard into the bladder, then pinch it with your finger and thumb, then go again until you made it hard. When I tried it, of course I filled it up in less than one breath. I phoned Eddie and told him but he either thought I was daft or hadn't got a clue ‘cos he just told me to blow harder".
Graham clearly believes that sourcing sound, well informed advice is a crucial aid for the aspiring cyclist: "Find someone who has already been there and done it, someone who's already enjoyed success. Watch, listen and learn from them. With their help search for your own limit". And Graham wasn't just on the receiving end of good advice: a 14 years old Birmingham schoolboy called Mick Bennett, who went on to be Olympic Team Pursuit Bronze medallist in both 1972 and 1976 and, more recently Tour of Britain and Tour Series race director, knocked on the door of the young Graham for the same reason.
Today Graham clearly remains in love with the sport and maintains his Great British cycling links by helping League of Veteran Racing Cyclists in their age related international racing adventures. A student of current GB success but not averse to dishing out some prodding criticism, he is a devout Cavendish fan: "Mark Cavendish is a truly outstanding bike rider. He's determined, aggressive and passionate. He has that self- belief that you need to be a champion. I think he could go on to win all the sprinters' classics and more, many times over. For me he's probably going to be the next British Men's World Road Race Champion. Nothing in cycling would give me more pleasure".
Forty years on from his unfulfilled and premature retirement as a professional cyclist he's retired again, this time from his job as a crane driver at a local steelworks after 31 years. He's still riding his bike with the locals but no crazy cornering and descending at the limit now, following major vascular surgery and his subsequent reliance on blood thinning medication.
He is enjoying a long and happy marriage to local girl Marie-Rose, and has his four stepdaughters and a daughter by their marriage. They have several grandchildren. "A couple of the boys ride" he says.
Their daughter's lung capacity was measured when she went for a job locally, something the company checked for all potential employees. Graham says, "Our daughter had never done any sport seriously but they measured her lung capacity at over 9 litres! It must be in the genes".
So here's a thought to ponder: what if you grow up in the Flemish cycling heartland; your mum's got more lung capacity than Miguel Indurain; your grand dad's got even more lung capacity than your mum and, oh yes, grand dad was, on a long forgotten Saturday afternoon back in September 1967, the World Amateur Men's Road Race Cycling Champion.
There just might be a story there in a few years time!